“We are transforming the body of the world into our bodies and minds.” Michael Pollan The Omnivore’s Dilemma
“God is not a vending machine” (seen on a church sign in Lampasas, TX)
I saw/heard both of these quotes on a trip a while back and they’ve been hanging out in my brain since then. Pollan has perhaps given us the most succinct of eucharistic theologies in this little statement, and the church sign unpacks it through a cultural phenomenon in relation to our food.
In the process of eating, we take in the body of the world, the dirt, water, air and sun contributing to grow plants, some of which are eaten by animals. In turn we consume the plants and animals to nourish our bodies. We are at the top of the food chain so the cycle ends with us. There is no one to benefit from our consumption. Because we are at the top it is our natural obligation to give back in order to keep the thing going.
The Eucharist is a sacred ritual in which we take the body and blood of Christ into ourselves in order that we might be transformed into his likeness. The form that this ritual takes is a meal of bread and wine. These are the products of grain and fruit (Notice that the Eucharist is vegetarian. Probably only for practical reasons, but nonetheless, interesting). The consumption of Christ is also a consumption of the body of the world. The incarnation seems to insure this. Consuming the body and blood connects us to the earth and each other. How could we make this sacred ritual mean this again?
One way, I think, is to use real bread and real wine. While I would never limit the Spirit to a particular form of Eucharist, I do think that the act of making bread and wine, or whatever the elements are, connects us to the ritual and its meaning in a powerful way. If we use wafers or hermetically sealed cups, then we should include in our prayer all of the lives and materials that it took to produce that convenient meal.
The idea of the all-in-one hermetically sealed communion package brings us to the idea that “God is not a vending machine.” The necessity of this sign indicates that some people treat God as a vending machine, a deity who dispenses blessing and spiritual wisdom on command. Doesn’t it also signify a connection between our consumer lifestyles and our notion of God. Could it be that the way we live our lives impacts our theology? The reduction of communion to a consumer activity in which the elements of the ritual are essentially expendable indicates something about our understanding of the God behind this ritual.
If we understood what we did both when we eat and when we commune, we would think twice about many of the ways we partake of meals and the Lord’s Supper.
Already questions and objections are entering my mind, but I want to let you voice them. What are your thoughts? Should Eucharist be SOLE (Sustainable Organic Local Ethical)? What about contextualization? What is appropriate for communion in various cultures including ours? Where do you draw lines?
I’m intrigued that you draw the connection between Pollan and the Eucharist. I felt the entire last section of Omnivore was a picture of the Lord’s Supper, although I’m sure (sadly) he doesn’t know it.
Having grown up Baptist, I had a pretty specific picture of what “Communion” was, and I’m not sure back then I would have gotten your point. For the past 3 years, however, I have been attending an evanglical Quaker meeting. Quakers historically do not celebrate Communion with the elements, believing that the Lord Himself is truly, literally present within each of us at all times, making the elements somewhat redundant. However, our community chose to celebrate Maundy Thursday this year with the elements, mainly for the benefit of the “converts” among us. Because it was a small gathering, we were able to use a few beautiful loaves of bread baked by members of our community. There was something transformative for me about observing this sacred ritual using real bread, baked by someone I know well. An altogether different experience from the “tic-tacs” and clear plastic cups (of grape juice–and don’t you forget it!) that I grew up with. Not that the experiences of my youth were not valuable, but I have a hard time imagining that was what our Lord had in mind when He said “Do THIS in remembrance of ME.” My kids have a children’s Bible that translates this statement as “Remember Me whenever you eat.” That pretty much says it all.
Thank you thank you thank you. For all of the ways that there are strong voices creeping into our popular culture advocating for making “real-er” food choices, it is amazing to me how infrequently this consciousness enters into the church’s thought about the Eucharist. More people need to be writing, thinking, and talking about the connections between food as a central part of life and Eucharist as a central part of the Christian life.
Thanks for the comments. Very encouraging to me as someone trying to live this out both practically and theologically.
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Thanks for your thoughts Lucas. I too have thought a lot about the Lord’s Supper and plan to write a blog post about it in the future. For me, it is important to remember that it is actual bread and wine (or juice), but I already focus on these elements of Communion. For me, I have to meditate on what the food is in remembrance of…Jesus Christ–His life, death, and resurrection. Like I said in Today is National Doughnut Day on my blog, the food needs to take a secondary place to the celebration or remembrance. The two cannot be disentangled from each other, and should not be. The food is secondary to the remembrance or celebration, but we need to affirm our faith and relationships first. That being said, there are still ethical and faithful ways to make decisions about food including Communion.
Thanks for the comment Michelle! I appreciate your perspective a lot, because it does force me to question and rethink things from another angle.
That said, I see our food choices as much more entangled with our practice, our relationship to the land and the biblical covenant with God. While I’m not willing to say that God can’t use a Happy Meal as the “food” for communion, I’m also not quite willing to say it’s secondary. This also might have a lot to do with a particular view of the theology of communion. If your theology is that it’s “only” a remembrance then it’s easier to make the actual elements almost unimportant. However, the higher the theology of communion, the more important the actual elements become. I tend to have a pretty high view of communion, but don’t necessarily subscribe wholly to consubstantiation or transubstantiation. There’s also an element of a memorial feast, but in the end it’s a mystery.
So, thanks for the challenge.The biggest question your comment and your blog raise for me is how do we work on removing guilt as the motivating factor while still affirming that our food choices have ethical implications?
Those are good thoughts for me to think through, too. Theologically, I’m not sure how “high” a view of communion I hold, but I do think the actual food is important in the sacrament. For me, it is too easy to say it’s just food and therefore make it have no meaning or all of the meaning.
That’s what I was hoping my Blog would cause, me and others to think and talk about the idea of guilt as a motivator for food and decision-making. This theme of guilt, unfortunately, is much larger and encompasses a large portion of our lives and how we make decisions than just our food. And I agree, we can’t just go to the other extreme and say that everything is a faithful decision for disciples of Jesus.
I look forward to more blog discussions and in-person discussions with people about this topic!
Thanks for the follow-up Michelle. Maybe we could do a series together thinking through guilt and food choices. I wrote about this last year when a Truett alum and fellow blogger shared about her frustration with buying non-fair trade chocolate for Halloween (Too Poor to Buy Fair Trade).
I did a series on the meaning of our purchases in what I call the consumer religion and that dealt somewhat with guilt:
The Church of Holy Purchases, Losing Faith in Holy Purchases, Holy Purchases: Identity and Idolatry and Holy Purchases: Practices and Possibilities.